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Rebounding keys a Braggin' Rights win

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ST. LOUIS — Cuonzo Martin had a challenge for his team entering Missouri’s annual rivalry matchup against Illinois. The Illini entered the game leading the nation in rebounding margin. Martin told his players to make them prove it.

“Like I said to our guys, if they’re the best rebounding team, then let’s find out,” Martin said.

In the end, it was the Tigers who looked like the better team on the boards. Missouri won the total rebounding battle 36 to 32 and scored 16 second-chance points on 13 offensive rebounds. Rebounding served as a major reason why, when the final buzzer sounded, it was the Tiger players dancing on the Enterprise Center court and posing with the oversized Braggin’ Rights trophy for the second year in a row. Missouri won 63-56.

“It was a huge emphasis,” Dru Smith said of the rebounding. “We knew that, I think they might be the best offensive rebounding team in the country. ... We all said, like, if we’re going to win this game, we have to win the rebounding battle, or at least make it really close.”

Mitchell Smith contributed six of Missouri's 39 rebounds in a win over Illinois.
Mitchell Smith contributed six of Missouri's 39 rebounds in a win over Illinois. (Jessi Dodge)

Entering Saturday, Illinois not only led the nation in rebounding margin, they ranked second in offensive rebounding percentage. Their success on the boards largely came from the frontcourt duo of Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. The pair entered the game averaging a combined 25 points and 16.2 rebounds per game.

Missouri held Cockburn and Bezhanishvili to a combined six rebounds, none of which came on the offensive end. Even more impressive, the Tigers did so without a big performance from junior center Jeremiah Tilmon. Battling a nagging foot injury and foul trouble, Tilmon played just 17 minutes and grabbed only one board. As a result, Missouri’s rebounding became a team-wide effort; the Tigers had no players grab more than six rebounds, but four players had at least five.

“Basically when the shot goes up, they don’t send everybody to the offensive glass,” Martin said of Illinois. “They probably send two guys. That means two guys for us that aren’t blocking anybody out, you have to go chase that rebound down. So it’s a collective effort of keeping balls alive and helping your big guys out.”

Martin especially praised junior big men Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko. Mitchell Smith, making his third start in a row, played 35 minutes, the most on the roster. Nikko didn’t score in his 16 minutes, but Martin expressed pleasure with his defense and effort on the glass.

“Credit goes to the big guys for embracing that challenge,” Martin said. “I mean Mitch, going against Kofi sometimes, he’s probably giving up 50 pounds. Did a great job moving his feet and high hands. Because it’s not easy, just the physical presence, and he carves out space around that rim. And even if he misses a shot so close to the rim, it’s hard to turn and box him out, because he’s so big.”

Entering Saturday, most would have believed that not only would Missouri need a big game from Tilmon to have a chance, but shooting guard Mark Smith. The Illinois transfer leads Missouri in made three-pointers and carried the team with 27 points against Souther Illinois on Sunday. Like Tilmon, Smith couldn’t get going against his former team. He failed to score in 25 minutes. As a team, Missouri made just one three-pointer in the second half.

The Tigers made up for his lack of offensive production by taking a page out of Illinois’ book and swarming the offensive glass. Time and again in the second half, as the Illini threatened to cut into the lead, Missouri found a way to keep a possession alive after a miss. Javon Pickett, who contributed 17 points off the bench, had a couple key put-backs. Xavier Pinson soared in between three Illinois players to tip in a miss. Tilmon had the most emphatic second-chance bucket when he caught a miss in his right hand and flushed an emphatic dunk all in one motion.

In all, eight of Missouri’s 13 offensive rebounds and 12 of 16 second-chance points came in the final 20 minutes.

“When the three-ball isn’t falling — and it’s safe to say our three-ball hasn’t fallen the way we’d like — so what do you do to compensate?” Martin said. “You rebound the basketball, offensive rebound.”

Ultimately, Missouri’s success on the glass mirrored its performance as a whole. The Tigers knew the neutral-site matchup against a big Illinois team that hasn’t shot the ball well had the potential to turn into a bare-knuckle brawl, so they made sure to throw the first punch. Illinois has looked like the better team all season, and especially with Tilmon and Mark Smith struggling, the Illini had more talent on the floor. But Missouri looked like the tougher, grittier team throughout the final 30 minutes. That translated to a win in the rebounding column and a much-needed win on the scoreboard.

“We came in here wanting to be the physical team,” said Pickett. “We wanted to go out there and be aggressive throughout the whole game. ... We wanted to be the tougher team. We knew that we are the tougher team.”